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The thirty-ninth of her father’s forty-two children, Ruth Wariner grew up in polygamist family on a farm in rural Mexico. In The Sound of Gravel, she offers an unforgettable portrait of the violence that threatened her community, her family’s fierce sense of loyalty, and her own unshakeable belief in the possibility of a better life. An intimate, gripping tale of triumph and courage, The Sound of Gravel is a heart-stopping true story.
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The Sound of Gravel
By Ruth Wariner
Flatiron BooksCopyright © 2015 Ruth Wariner
All rights reserved.
I am my mother's fourth child and my father's thirty-ninth. I grew up in Colonia LeBaron, a small town in the Mexican countryside 200 miles south of El Paso, Texas. The colony, as we called it, was founded by my father's father, Alma Dayer LeBaron, after God sent him a vision. In that vision, my grandfather was walking in the desert when he heard a voice that foretold of a place that would one day be populated with trees dripping with fruit, wonderful schools, beautiful churches, bountiful farms, and happy, faithful people. My grandfather had grown up in a fundamentalist Mormon family, and he always believed in the polygamist teachings of Joseph Smith. When the vision came to him, he knew he needed to move to Mexico and establish a community that would be a beacon of hope, an example of what comes from living righteously.
My grandfather and grandmother LeBaron established the colony in 1944, and other polygamist families soon followed. Before long, the dry Mexican earth was cleared of mesquite and planted with orchards, pecan trees, and gardens. Cattle were brought in to be raised, and the town grew and flourished. My grandfather boldly predicted that someday people from all over the world would make pilgrimages to the town, and that the work being done there would be of the utmost importance to the realization of God's kingdom on earth.
My grandfather died before I was born, but I entered childhood in the community that was his legacy. I took my first steps on the dirt roads that ran through the small farming community, tiny rocks and dry dirt getting stuck between my toes and piercing the soft soles of my feet. The trees my grandfather planted offered the shade that first cooled and protected my pale, freckled skin from the harsh desert sunlight. I ran through the peach orchards with my siblings, drank fresh milk from the cows on our dairy farm, and ate vegetables from the gardens my grandfather had first seen in the vision God sent him. My family and I always tried our best to be the happy, faithful people God had promised would come to populate the colony.
* * *
"RUTHIE," MOM YELLED to me from the hallway, "Get up quick. We'll be late for church." I rubbed my eyes and pulled myself out of the small bed I shared with my sister Audrey. Even though she was five years older than me, she wore a cloth diaper that often leaked during the night. I took a towel and dried my damp legs as Mom told me to hurry and get dressed. "There's not enough time to get Audrey and your brothers ready," she hollered. "Matt'll stay here and watch the kids and you'll come to church with me."
At five years old and with four siblings, having Mom's undivided attention was a rare privilege. I threw my pink cotton dress over my head and tried to run my fingers through my tangled hair. Mom put my baby brother Aaron in his playpen and called to my older brother Matt, asking him to keep an eye on things. Then she grabbed my hand and pulled me along behind her. I scurried to keep up, taking three steps for every one of Mom's long strides, happy to have been the one chosen to accompany her. The cool morning air was pungent with the scents of the freshly irrigated alfalfa fields, the dairy cows behind our house, and Mexican sage brush.
Every place in LeBaron was within walking distance of every other, and each unmarked, unnamed dirt road led to the church at the center of the colony. As Mom and I made our way to the simple, single-level adobe structure, pickup trucks sped past us, stirring up clouds of dust in their wake. As we got closer, we heard the strains of a piano and singing voices flowing through the two black wooden doors. "We're already late, Ruthie," Mom said, looking down at me through the plastic frames of her glasses. I was used to hurrying at her side; we were always late to everything.
Mom and I rushed past the few saddled horses tied to the crooked, wooden posts that held up the barbed-wire fence surrounding the churchyard. The singing voices grew louder as we entered the church and Mom searched the large, white-walled room for empty seats. The black wooden benches were full of congregants — women in Sunday dresses, nude nylons, and high heels, men in cowboy boots and Western shirts tucked into tight jeans under leather belts with big, silver belt buckles.
We crowded into open seats as Mom pulled out a hymn book from a wooden pocket on the back of the bench in front of us, cocked her neck forward, and squinted to peek over someone's shoulder to find the right page. I loved standing next to her in church. I was mesmerized by her eyelashes, which were usually so blond that I couldn't see them, but on Sundays she wore light brown Maybelline mascara and pearl-pink lipstick that she dabbed over her lips and onto her cheeks.
After playing three hymns, the pianist retired to a pew as a man stepped forward to utter a prayer, which a second man translated into Spanish for the Mexican parishioners on the opposite side of the building.
"Make sure no one can see your underpants, Sis," Mom whispered, straightening the hem of my dress over my knees as the elder called for someone to come up and offer a testimony.
Lisa, my stepfather Lane's sister, walked slowly, her head held high, the wooden heels of her strappy sandals tapping hard against the floor. She stood tall and spoke with confidence. She told us how thankful she was for all the blessings that our Heavenly Father had given her. She talked proudly about her devotion to the cause. She said that even though it was hard to share her husband with her sister wives, even though she sometimes felt jealous, she knew in her heart that she was obeying God's will by living polygamy. Lisa said she loved being a mother and that she was grateful to be the caretaker of the beautiful spirits the Lord had sent her. Then she thanked Him for giving her a good, righteous man to father her children. "After all," she said, "it is better to have ten percent of one good man than to have one hundred percent of a bad one." The women of LeBaron were always saying that, and Mom always nodded her head in agreement.
As Lisa spoke, I gazed at the three large, black-and-white photographs that hung behind the red-carpeted pulpit. The middle photo, bigger than the other two, was of a man with a round, shiny forehead and a square jaw. His dark hair was combed straight back, a few thin strands stretched flat over a bald spot. He wore a crisp white shirt buttoned to the top with a dark tie and matching jacket. His full lips were closed, and he didn't smile, but he had kind and happy eyes that stared out with confidence and authority.
This was my father. He had been the prophet of our church. He died when I was three months old, and no matter how many times I begged Mom to tell me about him, I could sense that there was a lot about my dad that I'd never know. Did he like playing board games and hiking in the Mexican hills like me? Did he like chocolate ice cream or did he prefer my favorite, old-fashioned vanilla? Everyone always said my dad was the kindest, most faithful, God-fearing man they knew. I wished I could remember what life had been like when he was alive.
After the service ended, Mom and I walked back to the farm slowly, relishing the warm sun on our shoulders and stopping to say hello to our friends and neighbors along the way. Very few of the homes in LeBaron had telephones and Sundays were a good chance for everyone to catch up. Mom stopped to talk to Lisa, who was not only my step-dad's sister, but she had also been one of my dad's wives. Even though she was much older than Mom, they were still good friends.
"I loved your testimony this morning," Mom told Lisa. "It really inspired me."
"Thank you, Kathy. Why don't you bring the kids over next Saturday and we can have dinner at my house?" Lisa smiled, her skin wrinkling around her eyes.
"That sounds great," Mom said. "I'll bring dessert."
Mom and Lisa said their good-byes and Mom grabbed my hand, pulling me toward home. "We'd better get back to Audrey and your brothers," she said. The streets were quiet as we walked past adobe homes with spacious yards and gardens surrounded by barbed wire fences.
The farther we got from the center of town, the more spread out the neighborhood became. Eventually we walked past our neighbor's farm and reached the tall earthen banks of the reservoir. Five hundred feet long and fifty feet wide, the reservoir brought water to our irrigation ditches and those of the neighboring farms. Young willow trees lined its perimeter, and we could usually hear families of frogs croaking from its banks. It had been built as a community water supply, but it served as the colony swimming pool too. Adults and children came from all over to frolic and swim in the open-air tank, diving into it from a giant pipe that pumped freshwater from a deep well.
Our house was on the other side of the reservoir, at the end of a long gravel driveway. A tall barbed-wire fence surrounded my stepfather's property. Unlike some of the houses closer to town, ours didn't have any flowerbeds or a lawn. Mom was never able to get anything to grow. Except for her Volkswagen Microbus, which was usually broken and parked beside the kitchen door in the side yard, the house sat stark and solitary against the dry Mexican landscape.
An irrigation ditch of steadily flowing water ran along the front of our property. My stepfather had dug out the ditch at the beginning of our driveway so that it was wide and shallow enough for cars to drive through without wetting a car's engine. But when we weren't in a car, we had to leap across the ditch's narrow edge to get to our house.
Mom held my hand and we jumped across. As we landed on the opposite edge, clumps of wet earth crumbled underneath our feet and splashed into the running water.
When we got inside, Mom went to nurse my baby brother, Aaron. I pulled out my Disney coloring book and stubby crayons and made myself comfortable on the living room floor. Matt and Luke went out to play, while my older sister, Audrey, sat on the couch pulling at the cotton threads in her shirt, staring off into the distance, a quiet moaning sound coming from the back of her throat.
"Hush, Sis," Mom said, patting Audrey on the shoulder as she passed back through the living room. "Ruthie, come help me with these beans." I jumped up from the floor and hurried to Mom's side. She pulled a large gunnysack of pinto beans from the corner of our small, square kitchen. "It's important for you to learn how to cook. You'll need to know what to do when you're married and have your own kids." She spilled a pile of the speckled, brown beans onto the kitchen table. "When I married your dad, I didn't know how to make beans or anything else because my mom never showed me." I climbed up onto a chair and began imitating Mom's movements, carefully taking a small handful of pintos and spreading them out in front of me.
"How old were you when you and Dad got married?" I didn't much care for boys, but I knew that I would get married one day. Celebrations were an important part of life in LeBaron. We had lots of rodeos, horseback rides, campouts, bridal showers, baby showers, birthday parties, and Friday-night square-dance lessons at the church. But weddings were the most important.
"I was seventeen." Mom scanned the pile of beans from behind her thick glasses, shooing away the flies that had infested our kitchen. My siblings and I loved hearing the story about how, on one of my dad's mission trips to Utah, he climbed to the top of a mountain where he was visited by several resurrected prophets, including Jesus, Moses, and Joseph Smith. They told my father that he had been selected to lead a congregation with Colonia LeBaron as its Zion. Out of this visitation, Dad's church, the Church of the Firstborn of the Fulness of Times was born.
My father believed that polygamy was one of the most holy and important principles God ever gave His people. He preached that for a man to reach the Celestial Kingdom — the highest level of heaven — he had to have at least two wives. If a man lived this principle, he would become a god himself and inherit an earth of his own, one just like our earth. Women who married polygamists, loved their sister wives, and had as many children as they could would become goddesses, which meant that they were their husband's heavenly servants. Salvation came from freeing oneself and others from the moral turpitude of Babylon. My dad had visions in which God foretold the destruction of the United States, which my dad believed was a modern Babylon. That's why he ended up doing much of his missionary work in the Babylon among Babylons: Las Vegas. That was was where he first noticed my mom.
"When we were living in Las Vegas, your dad asked Grandpa if he could court me."
"Court you? What's that?"
"It means that he wanted to get to know me so that he could marry me." Mom slid more beans across the tabletop. They sounded like plastic pieces moving over a checkerboard. "I was fourteen years old when I first heard about your dad. We were living in Utah, and your dad and his brother Ervil were on a mission trip there. One day, they put a pamphlet on Grandpa's windshield. Grandpa saw the pamphlet, took it out from under the windshield wiper, and brought it home." Mom paused to take another handful of beans from the sack. She spread them out on the table and picked out the rocks and dried weeds before sliding the beans into a pot on her lap.
"That pamphlet changed my life. Not long after Grandpa read that paper, he started asking questions at church, questions about Joseph Smith's original teachings and why polygamy was no longer a part of the Mormon way of life. Not long after Grandpa started asking those questions, he was excommunicated from the Church. That's when we moved to LeBaron.
"When the bishop made your grandpa leave the Church, Grandpa took it as a sign from God that your dad was right, that the LDS Church had lost its way. He bought property in LeBaron and moved us down here."
"Did you like moving to LeBaron?" I asked, trying to imagine a time before my mom lived on the colony.
"Well, Sis, it was a real shock for me. I really missed my friends in Utah. I had always been shy, so it was hard for me to move to a new place." Mom looked down at her pile of beans with a somber expression. "But our time here didn't last long. It was too hard for Grandpa to support us in Mexico, just like it is hard here for a lot of people even now. So Grandma and Grandpa eventually moved us to Vegas. A lot of your dad's followers were livin' and workin' as builders and painters in Vegas. Grandpa and Grandma bought a diner there and called it the Supersonic Drive-In. I worked there as a waitress — a waitress on roller skates."
"And that's where you met my dad?"
"Well, I knew about your dad before he first saw me at the diner. Grandpa had been going to your dad's church for about four years by then. I had a dream about marrying your dad and I told your grandpa about it, so he said yes when your dad asked to court me. Our wedding was just a few months later. I became your dad's fifth wife in a small ceremony right here in a living room in LeBaron."
In our dark, bare-walled kitchen far from the lights of Las Vegas, I watched Mom's lightly freckled arm slide another clean pile of beans off the edge of the table into the pot and thought about how different her life was now. Mom had five kids — my older sister, Audrey, my older brothers, Matt and Luke, and the baby, Aaron. Mom always seemed worried and exhausted. I liked imagining her skating around a diner, serving hamburgers to my dad.
"But, Mom, didn't you like Las Vegas? Why did you want to leave?"
The sound of the hard beans hitting the metal pan echoed through the kitchen. "Of course I loved parts of our life in Vegas, Ruthie. I made lots of friends there and I loved music and dancing, but I felt like I wanted more. That's when I started to like your dad. I was only seventeen, but he inspired me to live a life for our Heavenly Father's purpose. I wanted to be a part of his big family and help with his work in the church."
Mom stopped cleaning the beans for a moment, sat back in her chair, and rested her thick brown hair against its back. She always cut her hair herself, and always just above her shoulders, in short, feathered layers. She smiled as a faint whiff of fresh cow's milk drifted through the kitchen window. It mingled with the scent of the green alfalfa fields outside and the cheese curds we kept in a pan on the stove. Except for when it rained, when all we smelled was wet dirt from the adobe bricks and stucco that made up our small, five-room house, the kitchen always smelled like the little mice that scampered along the walls, the cows in the fields outside, and the Mexican sagebrush on the nearby mountains.
Excerpted from The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner. Copyright © 2015 Ruth Wariner. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part I: The Promised Land,
Part II: Babylon,
Part III: Alone,
Part IV: Breaking,
About the Author,